If something is needless to say, why do we say it?
“Needless to say” acts as a disclaimer. It means that whatever the speaker (or writer) plans to say next, doesn’t need to be said. The speaker understands and acknowledges this through the use of the disclaimer–but says it anyway. Why we persist in saying something that doesn’t need to be said doesn’t make much sense, but the phrase is a common one. Proof? I just used it in the title. Needless to say, I thought it was catchy.
A disclaimer phrase acts as a lead-in–or, perhaps, a warning. Consider the phrase “No offense, but….” Anyone who has ever said, or heard, or been in the vicinity of anyone who has ever said or heard, “No offense, but…” knows what’s coming next. Something offensive.
“No offense, but…” is a lead-in that gives the soon-to-be-offended party time to prepare. Unfortunately, it’s probably not enough time to run away and not have to hear whatever ignorant, unflattering or insulting comment the speaker feels compelled to make, which just by saying “No offense, but…” shows the speaker knows s/he should not be saying it. “No offense, but…” is a somewhat more polite way of saying, “Brace yourself, I’m about to insult you.”
As I edit manuscripts, I find quite a few disclaimers and lead-ins. I also find words that are needless to write. Sometimes it’s repetition or redundancy.
Example: “She gave a final, last push against the door.”
Final and last? This reminds me of when I tried to train my dog to sit. I was an inexperienced dog owner. I didn’t know about first you say, then you show. I would give the command–“Sit!”–and my dog would continue to stand. Usually, she’d wag her tail, to show she was happy I was talking to her. Instead of reaching out and pushing her bottom to the pavement to demonstrate “Sit!” I would repeat the command. Over and over. I’m sure, at least once, I said, “This is the final, last time I tell you to sit!”
My dog never learned to sit properly.
Here’s another example: “He popped off a quick fast jab.”
This may be for style or effect, but it’s still overkill. The use of words that mean the same thing, twice, don’t add information. They just add to the word count. As a reader, I am reading more words, without learning any more information.
This one reminds me of word problems in math: “John was taking the train to Baltimore, so if the train traveled at the normal speed for 10 miles and a quick fast speed for 15 miles, what time would John arrive at the aquarium?”
I was never any good at word problems.
Oftentimes, needlessly offensive words hang around our body parts.
Example: “I nodded my head.”
Your head? Really? As opposed to nodding your foot? Your elbow? Your spleen?
Example: “I shrugged my shoulders.”
Shoulders are the #1 recipient of shrugs. #2 would be…there is no #2 in shrugging. You shrug your shoulders because no other body part can be shrugged. You can “shrug it off” but the “it” is relative, and no matter what “it” is, if you shrug it, your shoulders are involved. You can shrug off your jacket, but again, there are the shoulders. Face it. Shrugging = shoulders. Which means, you don’t have to write it down. It’s understood.
Example: “I waved my hand goodbye.”
“Wave” is a fine example of a verb that can be applied to a plethora of choices. You can wave a flag. You can wave a handkerchief. You can wave your hair. Wave is a busy little verb. But if you write, “I waved my hand goodbye,” you’re wasting words. “I waved goodbye” is good enough. We know your hand was involved.
It’s akin to writing, “My legs ran across the road.” Think how busy your legs would be if you included them in every sentence. “I bent my legs at the knees and sat.” “I propelled my legs forward in a speedy motion and ran.” “I used my legs muscles to raise myself and stood up.” Do we write this way? No. We write, “I sat.” “I ran.” “I stood up.”
This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings about writing: Characters sleep and go to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it.
And no offense, but…if you are including all that stuff about the legs, you need to work on your writing.
Does this apply to every body part and verb? No. “Cross” can apply to a range of body parts. You can cross your arms, your legs, your eyes, your ankles. (You can also cross your enemy to show danger, cross off a tip, or cross yourself to show faith, but that’s another blog.) So if you write “I crossed” you need to add a body part.
Ditto on licked: “I looked into his handsome face and licked my lips.”
Now leave out the body part. “I looked into his handsome face and licked.”
That might be fun, but it sure changes the meaning, doesn’t it?
Language can be general, or it can be specific. Meaning can be interpreted. Word count, however, is a number. If you don’t need extra words, don’t add them. If you do, you’ll make the reader work unnecessarily hard, and that might make them late to catch the train to the aquarium.
And needless to say, this is the final last time I will write about it.